who documented New York's
emergence as a centre of culture
and made readers think for themselves
Wednesday August 20, 2003
The most important
lesson to be drawn from the life of Harold Schonberg is that he was
great not because he was right. In hindsight, the long-serving chief
classical music critic of the New York Times (NYT), who has died aged
87, was wrong on some fairly significant matters - such as the technical
prowess of pianist Glenn Gould and the artistic viability of his serialist
namesake, the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Yet this first American
music critic to win the Pulitzer prize, in 1971, truly documented the
musical aspects of New York's postwar emergence as a centre of culture,
which was marked by the arrival of great European concert artists and
teachers, the rise of the American orchestra and the burgeoning of the
city's avant garde. The clarity of his writing allowed his readers to
think for themselves. And they did: week after week of negative Schonberg
reviews, for example, did little to blight the success of Leonard Bernstein's
tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
Born and brought
up in New York, Schonberg studied the piano with an aunt who had been
a pupil of the great Leopold Godowsky. He soon found, however, that
his talent lay not in performing, but in remembering a given piece or
performance. At the age of 12, while listening to Wagner's Die Meistersinger
at the Metropolitan Opera, he decided to become a critic. Nine years
later, his first reviews were published, while he was still a student
at Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1937.
He continued to
write while pursuing a master's degree at New York University, and in
1939 became associate editor and record critic for the American Music
Lover. War service in the US army airborne signal corps, from 1942 to
1946, took him to London, where he was a codebreaker and parachutist,
and reached the rank of first lieutenant.
On his return home,
he worked at the New York Sun, and was also US correspondent for Britain's
Gramophone magazine before being taken on to the NYT in 1950. Within
10 years, he was its chief classical music critic, and worked behind
the scenes to expand music coverage, both in terms of space and staff.
His facility was
remarkable: he could write letter-perfect reviews in less than 45 minutes
- and they were not the typical laundry-list account of a concert programme.
He sometimes wrote in the form of chatty letters to an imaginary friend
- known as the "Dear Ossip" reviews - that were full of humour amid
the barbs. One such was prompted by the famous Bernstein/Gould collaboration
on Brahms's First Piano Concerto in 1962; by the end, Schonberg speculated
to Ossip that Gould's ultra-slow tempos were not an artistic choice,
but a technical imperative.
Pianists were a
speciality - perhaps the most quoted of Schonberg's 13 books is The
Great Pianists (1963). Above all, he was fascinated by the Russians,
and it was through his writing that America learned what was so remarkable
about figures such as Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, who transformed
the piano repertoire in the 1950s and 60s. As Vladimir Horowitz made
any number of comebacks, Schonberg was like a sentry at Carnegie Hall,
ready to document how the pianist's playing had evolved.
In a few respects,
Schonberg's viewpoint could be seen as distinctly American. Though he
travelled widely, his attention was concentrated on those performers
with substantial New York careers, particularly those whose interpretations
of the heroic 19th-and 20th-century piano literature grew from a bedrock
of equally heroic technique. More fallible keyboard philosophers, such
as Edwin Fischer, for example, received only passing mention in The
writing arguably came after his 1980 retirement, during which he continued
to contribute to the NYT and freelance for numerous other publications.
His language became far richer; his thoughts more considered. He also
had time to pursue other interests. Besides reviewing mysteries under
a pseudonym, he enjoyed a lifelong fascination with chess, and, among
other things, covered the 1984 match between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly
The formality and
longterm logic of chess spoke to a part of Schonberg that was sometimes
bent on investigating highly elusive matters. He kept meticulous timings
of the movement lengths of standard repertoire works and, near the end
of his life, attempted to demonstrate how much tempos have slowed in
recent years. But his sense of logic did not carry over into an appreciation
of highly systematised composition. He railed against serialism, and
at the time of his retirement, when that method of composition was on
the wane, declared that this was one case in which he had been right.
As much by example
as by pronouncement, Schonberg defined what a critic is, and what he
is not. A critic is not a performing musician in exile: that was clear
in Schonberg's admission that, as a pianist, he never mastered any of
Beethoven's piano sonatas, though he knew them all intimately. Ergo,
a critic is not a professor or coach in disguise. Schonberg pointed
to problems in a performance, but stopped short of suggesting solutions,
which are up to the performer. Though he had his biases, he did not
have agendas. He was pure critic: he wrote for himself, not for greater
professional gain outside his field.
His ideas about
professional distance were also strict: he did not hobnob or fraternise,
though in later years he relaxed that policy, and was sought out by
emigrating pianists, such as Vladimir Feltsman, and emerging ones, such
as Evgeny Kissin. In retirement, he took part in young artist competitions,
including one in Rochester, New York, that gave first prize to the 12-year-old
violinist Joshua Bell.
Above all, Schonberg
loved music, not as common an attribute among critics as one might think.
Even in recent years, as his eyesight was faltering, he could be seen
struggling to read the letters of Berlioz with a magnifying glass, while
commuting by bus between Manhattan and his weekend home on Long Island.
To disagree with
him was to achieve a better understanding of music. Inevitably, casual
conversations turned to his favourite topic, pianists, and even when
he damned one of your favourites, his reasoned clarity left you with
a more crystallised idea of why you loved what he did not.
He was married to
his first wife, Rosalyn, from 1942 till her death in 1973, and to his
second wife, Helen, from 1975 till her death earlier this year. He leaves